Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Letter From Joseph

(This post was written for the 98th Edition of the COG: "The topic for the next edition of the COG will be: Document Analysis! Show us a document that helped you break down a brick wall on your family tree. Discuss the information that appears on the document and how it contributes to your family history.")

In May of 2008, I got the idea that I wanted to make a family history book for my grandmother for Christmas of that year.  The only problem was that I didn't know a whole lot about her family, her grandmother being the biggest mystery.  Susanna von Allmen, the lady in question and my great-great-grandmother, was a real enigma even though I had several pictures of her and she dutifully showed up in every census after her marriage in 1866.  From those records I knew that she was born around 1850 in Illinois and that her parents were from Switzerland. That was it.

Since I didn't have much on my grandmother's ancestors, I asked if I could go through her family documents and was, to my joy, told that I could go through and keep whatever I wanted.  I only had about an hour or two that day to actually go look at what she had so I needed to quickly gloss over everything, pull out anything that looked the least bit genealogical, and throw it in a bag to take home and analyze later.  Among the things I took that day was a bundle of letters.  I hadn't really looked at them closely, but I knew they were letters to Susanna from her husband, John Berger and later, her son, Gideon (my great-grandfather). 

That night, once I had some free time, I started going through it all.  The letters were the last thing I looked at.  I had been putting them off because there were so many to look through, but at the same time I knew, just looking at the bundle, there it would probably be a goldmine.  It was, but I still knew nothing more about Susanna than when I had started and there were only a few more letters to go.  Then it happened: I came across a letter unlike any of the others and from a man I had never heard of before. 

The first thing I saw when I unfolded the letter was the header "Joseph Allmen" (see the image) and that whoever this Joseph Allmen was, was from Evansville, Indiana (the same place where Susanna got married in 1866).  The letter began "Dear Sister" and my breathe caught in my throat at the thought that this could be a relative of Susanna's and possibly the key to finding out who her parents were.  The rest of the letter (which I will transcribe for Amanuensis Monday) goes on to discuss my great-grandfather, Gideon, who apparently came and stayed with Joseph Allmen and his family while he (Gideon) was on his way back east to attend Boston University.  It quickly becomes clear that this Joseph Allmen, although his name is somewhat different from "von Allmen," is the brother of my Susanna. 

(the first page of Joseph's letter to his sister, Susanna.  May 8, 1915.)

Armed with the name of a sibling and the new knowledge that Susanna had family in Evansville as late as 1915, I was off.  The first thing I did was look for Joseph in the 1910 census. Up popped a "Joseph Alman" in Evansville, born in Illinois around 1868 (which I would later learn was off by about ten years, he was born in 1857), his wife of 20 years, Missouri and their two teenage daughters, Helen and Alzadia.  Then I started going backwards, first the 1900 census, then 1880 and then 1870.  In 1870 I found a Joseph Allmen living in Evansville, born in Illinois and about twenty-three years old.  In the household are two other boys, Isaac age 17 and Abraham, age 20.  Also in the household are a Christian Allman, age 55 and Barbary Allman, age 48.  They were of the right age to be Joseph's and Susanna's parents, and they were born in Switzerland.  But I still had to place Susanna in the same household.  I NEEDED to find the 1860 census because it would be the only one to have both Susanna and Joseph in the same household (Susanna was married by the 1870 census and Joseph wasn't alive for the 1850 census).

I hunted and hunted but found nothing.  I looked in Illinois and I looked in Evansville and everywhere in between.  Nada.  Then it struck me: remove the last name.  It had been giving me fits anyway, none of them were ever "von Allmen," sometime they were Allmen, sometimes Allman, and occasionally Alman or Almen.  So I just typed in "Joseph," age about three (plus/minus 5 years), in Evansville.   I got 38 hits.  I scrolled through them, looking for anything resembling "Allmen" and then I found it!  Joseph "Ollman," about three years of age, born in Illinois.  With him are parents, Christ (45, born in France this time), Barbara (38, also born in France), Mary (18, France again), Margret (14, Illinois), Susan (10, Illinois), Isaac (9, Illinois) and Abe (8, Illinois).  I recognized Isaac and Abe from the 1870 census and was thrilled to see a Susan in the family. 

I now had the tentative names of Susanna's parents, Christian and Barbara Allmen.  Not long after, I was given Susanna's funeral card from my grandmother.  It listed her exact birth date and location and exact death date and location.  Knowing that, I was able to get Susanna's death certificate and it confirmed what I believed.  Her parents were Christian von Allmen and Barbara Steiner. 

Since then I have learned about where in Switzerland the family was from as well as trace back a further couple of generations.  I've also been able to trace Susanna's siblings and discover the death information for her parents.  I learned that the family dropped the "von" part of the name upon arriving in the USA, but Susanna alone, for some reason, hung on to it which is why it had been so difficult to trace her family.  Since then I've been in touch with descendants of Joseph and other von Allmen relatives far and wide and we have exchange information, with me learning a little something new about the family each time.  I have come so far since that May day two years ago and I have one document to thank for it, a letter from Joseph.


  1. Nicely written Leah!

    What a great find. Who knows how long you might have been looking if not for that letter...

  2. What a great find. I love it when I find letters, as they can often give you puzzle pieces you need, but they can be frustrating too, because the writers assumed the recipient knows the information we miss...

    I loved reading your post.


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